Writing what we don’t know

Musing today on that sage advice, write what you know.  Sounds like a good idea, but is it?

Not if we take it too literally. We don’t write to record what we’ve done or re-imagine what we’ve done. It could be argued that we write to experience something vicariously. And these events or experiences might be quite new to us.

Like many fiction writers, you may–like me–have a boring life. We keep our lives uneventful so that nothing will get in the way of writing. (Maybe this in itself should warn off aspiring writers. Write novels, and you will shun the world.) E.L. Doctorow said in a recent interview in the Paris Review that “A writer’s live is so hazardous that anything he does is bad for him.” Experiences are not good. They take you away from writing.

Doctorow’s was an outrageous statement. Meant, I think, to make us question our assumptions about writing. Look closely, and there’s truth to found there.

Of course we do mine our experiences, but for the most part they are emotional experiences. As writers we experience emotions that are universal. Each of us has experienced an incredible variety of emotions. As writers, our job is to imagine such emotions hitting characters more deeply than these emotions may have visited us. It is the writer’s special talent to empathize with people–whether they are male or female, similar to us or dissimilar–and to imagine their lives. I can write about a soldier in Flanders in WWI, if I have experienced suffering and death (and am willing to do the factual research), and I can write about about a Victorian woman’s quest for power if I have ever been thwarted in a deep desire.

In our writing we make use of our practical experiences, of course. But quite often these are extras: returning a serve in tennis, saddling a horse, birthing a child.

The rest is the exploration of the imagined place, person and specific feeling. And we will know it as we write it.


Dear readers and friends,

My blog is changing. I’ll be sharing more personal perspectives on the writing life rather than teaching fiction. I find that I need to commit more time to my writing, and some things, alas, must go.  It’s exciting to have a new book coming out, and of course, the next one’s under way. They’ll now get more of my attention.  I hope you’ll still drop by and catch some of my musings on the writing life and, soon, some insights into my latest book.  With many thanks–Kay

8 Responses

  1. Timothy P. Mooney says:

    Ms. Kenyon:
    An interesting supposition, that we, as writers, live less than exciting lives, in order to spend our time writing. I have to disagree, at least from a personal point of view. I try to lave myself with new and exciting experiences, explore the opportunities out there to help me in my writing, and I think my fiction is better because of it. My poetry certainly benefits from the diverse experiences I allow myself. But then, we, as writers, need to follow that path which is the best for our art, and no two writers follow the same path (Thank goodness!).
    I think that Samuel Clemons and William Faulkner would side with me on this, were they here to comment. However, it seems to work well for you, and that’s the important thing. Thanks for letting me share.

  2. Kay says:

    Well, that was a provocative statement, about leading boring lives!
    But it was fun to take an outrageous position in order to debunk the idea that we should write what we know.
    I agree that if one has time and inclination, rich experiences are lovely fodder. But we aren’t limited to them.

  3. Boring is certainly not what I would call the life of most writers I know. I write SciFi, memoirs, and historical stuff and have had a blast for a life. I know my experiences have contributed to both the subjects of my writing and the way I write. All you really need is a vast imagination that can think outside of the box and the desire to write, even if it’s just for fun. One example of my writing is a novel I just released. An excerpt can be read at http://www.CryFthr.blogspot.com. Like writing of almost any genre, it’s the interactions of people or anthropomorphized critters that makes the story.

  4. Rachealgrace Adams says:

    I agree in part to narrowing down time for writing. There are times when other people may call for the time being my life boring however I don’t see it that way. Having kept several internet sites going for years the time has come for me too, to devote more time to my own writing. Since I write poetry, prose and am also working on three novels, its come to the point for I can no longer spend so much time generating more readers. After all if I am not producing anything new, there will be nothing new to add. So like you it is back to more full time writing for me as well. May our pens not run out of ink nor our printers quit printing!

  5. Dr Bob Rich says:

    Kay, I agree with you and disagree with you. 🙂
    You do need to write what you know. But that is an expandable commodity. As you said, you can research the life of a soldier in battle, then put yourself in his situation.
    Um… can you? Only if you can imagine the feeling of near-certainty of dying, of bottled up grief for friends gone, of constant tension and terror.
    It’s more than empathy, more than putting yourself in someone else’s place. It is a necessity of having been there. If you can’t do this, the story won’t ring true.
    And yet we can do it.
    I have an explanation for it many people may take to be outrageous: if you can write realistically about that soldier, then you must have been in a reasonably parallel situation — if not in this life, then in a previous one.

  6. Partial agreement here as well. Until recently, I have played it too safe. After the recent success of my first novel, I’ve been trying to expand my experience, take more time to see and do new things. Even the routine that helps me write consistently varies. The owner of the sandwich shop where I do most of my writing knows that I always want to try something new and different. I’m already halfway through the menu. The best thing about new experiences as a writer: Most are tax deductible.

  7. Thanks for a fresh perspective on writing what you know and don’t know. I like what you said about feeling the same emotions we feel in the characters we created

  8. Kay says:

    Thanks for the comment, Rebecca. That deep empathy is the secret to both characters we root for and those we may disapprove of. Oddly.

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